l Hirschfeld is one of a handful of caricaturists whose work continues—so far—to outlive him. While he also drew movie and TV stars, dancers, and musicians of all kinds, Hirschfeld was and is best known for his sketches of Broadway actors, which appeared regularly in the New York Times in an astonishingly durable career that lasted from 1928 until just before his death in 2003 at the age of 99. By the time of his passing, he had long since become a fixture on Broadway—the only artist to be better known by name to the general public than the drama critics whose pieces were illustrated by his pen-and-ink line drawings. Indeed, those drawings were so popular and distinctive that the Times made no attempt to find a replacement. Comparatively few art critics, then or now, took note of his work other than in passing, but he was universally admired and appreciated by the men and women whom he drew, so much so that a Broadway theater was renamed for him five months after he died.
Now Hirschfeld has been honored in a different way, with a large-scale retrospective organized by a major museum—though not, significantly, an art museum. “The Hirschfeld Century: The Art of Al Hirschfeld,” which closes on October 12 at the New-York Historical Society, consists of more than 100 original drawings and other works spanning the whole of Hirschfeld’s career. Curated by David Leopold, the artist’s longtime archivist, the exhibition offers a fully representative cross-section of his ten-thousand-odd drawings, paintings, and prints. For those unable to see the show in person, Leopold has also edited The Hirschfeld Century: Portrait of an Artist and His Age, an annotated catalogue whose extensive and illuminating text is by far the most penetrating discussion of Hirschfeld’s work to have been published other than the artist’s own insufficiently known writings.1
“The Hirschfeld Century” exhibit and its catalogue leave no doubt of the centrality of Hirschfeld’s oeuvre as a journalistic chronicle of the lively arts in 20th-century America, not just on Broadway but in Hollywood as well.2 But Leopold goes further, arguing that Hirschfeld deserves recognition not merely as a commercial illustrator but as a serious artist. This is a timely moment to make such an assertion, given the growing critical attention that has been paid in recent years to such “graphic novels” and “graphic memoirs” as Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Daniel Clowes’s Ghost World, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus. But Leopold, to his credit, is judicious in the claims that he makes for Hirschfeld, closing The Hirschfeld Century with a double-edged quip by George Burns that puts his considerable gifts in perspective: “Hirschfeld is no Picasso, but then Picasso was no Hirschfeld.”
True enough, yet two questions come inescapably to mind. How well does Hirschfeld’s output hold up next to that of European caricaturists such as Max Beerbohm (1872–1956) and Honoré Daumier (1808–1879), who have won widespread critical acceptance as artists of consequence? And what, if anything, does the singularity and slightly dated quality of his work—for he has had no successors, at the Times or elsewhere—tell us about the diminished place of theater in postmodern American culture?
nlike his predecessors, Hirschfeld devoted the bulk of his time and energy to drawing pop-culture stars. Not for him the delicately self-conscious refinement of a Beerbohm, who caricatured the likes of Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, and Oscar Wilde and gleefully claimed that there were only “fifteen hundred readers in England and one thousand in America who understand what I am about.” Hirschfeld, by contrast, was widely known as the clever weekly cartoonist who concealed the name of Nina, his daughter, in all of his drawings, and hundreds of thousands of people delighted in finding those Ninas every Sunday morning. How could a man who sketched Jack Benny, the Monkees, and the original cast of Waiting for Godot with seemingly indistinguishable relish have been anything but a throwaway artist?
What’s more, Hirschfeld portrayed his subjects, high and low alike, with next to none of the satirical bite that has been characteristic of nearly every other caricaturist of note. As he explained in the introduction to The World of Hirschfeld, a 1970 collection of his drawings:
The art of caricature, or rather the special branch of it that interests me, is not necessarily one of malice. It is never my aim to destroy the play or the actor by ridicule. . . . My contribution is to take the character—created by the playwright and acted out by the actor—and reinvent it for the reader.
Hirschfeld practiced what he preached. Despite the fact that he made satirical lithographs for the Communist-controlled New Masses in the ’20s and ’30s before deciding that he was “closer to Groucho Marx than to Karl,” he was almost always ineffective on the rare occasions when he attempted political caricature. “I would have been a lousy political cartoonist,” he said. “You have to have too much venom.”
Unlike Daumier or George Grosz, he had no venom at all, and its absence, as The Hirschfeld Century demonstrates time and again, helped to define his style. It could scarcely have been less malicious. The Line King, a 1994 film documentary about Hirschfeld, actually opens with a sequence in which a group of Broadway stars talk about how much they like his caricatures—though one suspects that at least a few of them spoke out of an excess of caution.3 And for the most part, though, they had little reason to complain. Such harsh portraits as the 1957 TV Guide cover that reduces Alfred Hitchcock to a gross green head with a monstrously pendulous lower lip are few and far between. Far more often than not, the note sounded by Hirschfeld is one of affection, both when it is expected (his 1966 drawing of Gwen Verdon in Sweet Charity effortlessly catches her elfin, leggy charm) and when it is not (he gives Liberace a valentine-shaped face with a toothy grin, never hinting at the effeminacy that a less amiable caricaturist might have chosen to emphasize).
He sought to suggest the personalities of his subjects in a way that was visually appealing in its own right, thus allowing viewers unfamiliar with their real-life appearances to enjoy the results.
As for Hirschfeld, the vaulting dynamism of his line drawings more than compensated for what he lost by forgoing spleen. It was his special gift to suggest on paper physical movement, as he does in the swooping strokes with which he conveys the physical vitality of the dancer Sono Osato, who dominates his 1944 New York Times drawing of the cast of the original production of On the Town. (Interestingly, Hirschfeld was never better than when drawing dancers and jazz musicians, whom he seems to have viewed as birds of a feather.) No less typical was their flattened-out perspective, a quality also to be found in the Asian painters and printmakers whose work he so admired. It contributes to their immediacy, though it also diminishes the effectiveness of his drawings of the full cast of a play, which are too often cluttered with finicky detail. It is when he singles out one or two subjects—as he was increasingly inclined to do in later years—that his use of exaggeration to indicate personality is seen at its best.
These latter drawings exemplify Beerbohm’s oft-quoted definition of caricature: “On a small surface, with the simplest means, it most accurately exaggerates, to the highest point, the peculiarities of a human being, at his most characteristic moment, in the most beautiful manner.” Hirschfeld’s eye for telling physical detail—Carol Channing’s ingenuously wide-set eyes, Fred Astaire’s triangular head, John Lithgow’s huge chin and centrally bunched facial features—was preternaturally sharp. Yet he never stooped to the gratuitously over-emphatic exaggeration of lesser cartoonists. Like Beerbohm, he sought to suggest the personalities of his subjects in a way that was visually appealing in its own right, thus allowing viewers unfamiliar with their real-life appearances to enjoy the results.
As Hirschfeld grew older, his work became more spare, and the caricatures of his extreme old age can be startling in their ruthless simplicity. A particularly noteworthy example is the 1990 color lithograph “Satchmo!” (not reproduced in The Hirschfeld Century). In it, Louis Armstrong’s familiar face is reduced to little more than a mile-wide smile, balanced by the single sinuous curve that stands for his left arm. The result is a drawing in which the joyous public figure whom the whole world knew and loved is brought to life with a near-abstract economy of gesture that is not merely witty but—yes—beautiful. One cannot help but recall in connection with “Satchmo!” the words of Hokusai, the Japanese printmaker whom he singled out as a major influence: “At 90, I shall penetrate the mystery of things; at 100, I shall certainly have reached a marvelous stage; and when I am 110, everything I do, be it a dot or a line, will be alive.”
Hirschfeld’s Times obituary carried the following headline: “Al Hirschfeld, 99, Dies; He Drew Broadway.” And for all the distinction of his other drawings, it is his Broadway caricatures for which he will probably be remembered longest—longer, one suspects, than any other American caricaturist, regardless of field. None of the once-celebrated American political cartoonists of the past, after all, are remembered today as artists qua artists, while Hirschfeld’s peers in the now-extinct field of theatrical caricature, including Miguel Covarrubias and Al Frueh, are known only to specialists. More than a decade after his death, he stands alone.
On the other hand, Broadway itself has ceased to be central to American cultural life in the way that it was in the postwar years when Hirschfeld reached the peak of his personal fame. In the ’50s and ’60s, Broadway stars routinely sat alongside Jack Paar and Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and appeared as guests on such popular prime-time programs as The Ed Sullivan Show and What’s My Line? Now they are unknown outside the theater district of New York, so much so that it has become all but impossible to open a new play on Broadway without the financially galvanizing presence in the cast of a youthful movie or TV star. Nor are there any contemporary playwrights who are nearly as well-known as, say, Edward Albee or Arthur Miller, both of whose plays figured prominently in Hirschfeld’s drawings. The last serious drama by an American playwright to become a multi-year Broadway hit, Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County, opened eight years ago.
It is for this reason that there will never be another Al Hirschfeld. Not only would no New York newspaper employ him, but most of the other publications that ran his drawings, such as Collier’s and TV Guide, are now extinct or moribund. And as our collective cultural memory continues to shrink, it seems improbable that even the best of his drawings will be of consuming interest to the grandchildren of the theatergoers who not so very long ago avidly located his Ninas.
If those drawings survive, as they should, it will be partly because of their intrinsic beauty and partly because they so potently evoke golden-age Broadway, most of whose evanescent magic now survives only on original-cast albums and faded snippets of film and videotape—and in Hirschfeld’s incomparably vivid caricatures. For as David Leopold observes in The Hirschfeld Century:
The number of people who have seen Carol Channing in performance in such roles as Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! is decreasing, alas. By the next generation, they may know her as much by her Hirschfeld drawings as by any audio- or videotape or photograph.
It is sad to suppose that our video-besotted descendants may know Broadway in its halcyon years as much through Hirschfeld’s drawings as anything else. But if they do, then they will at least know that there was a time when the Great White Way was full of personalities so powerful that they inspired a great graphic artist to capture them on paper for all time. There are worse fates.
1 Knopf, 320 pages. Except as indicated, all of the drawings discussed in this essay are reproduced in The Hirschfeld Century.
2 In addition to his better-remembered work for the New York Times, Hirschfeld created posters and other promotional art for MGM and United Artists from 1927 through the mid-’60s and painted 40 TV Guide covers, more than any other artist.
3 Carol Channing, one of his most frequent subjects, spoke more candidly of his famous 1964 drawing of her in the title role of Hello, Dolly!: “It’s not unflattering, really. I’d like to look like that.”